We are facing a period of significant change regarding demographics at work, with five generations in the workplace becoming a reality for many organisations across the globe.
There are the Silent Generation, now in their 70s and 80s; the Baby Boomers, spanning from their mid-50s up to 70; and Generation X, currently in their mid-30s to mid-50s. Then there are the Gen Y ‘Millennials’, aged between 21 and 33 - a tech-savvy, highly connected and high-achieving cohort with very different workplace behaviours and expectations to the generations before them. And now Gen Z - the under 20’s - are making their way into organisations. This latest group to enter the workplace are not just digital natives, but mobile natives, and bring with them yet another fresh perspective.
The breadth of generations in the workplace has huge implications for employers in terms of managing their differing needs, expectations and ways of thinking.
In a recent event hosted by BIE, with guest speaker Nigel Jeremy, currently BA's Chief Learning Officer, we discussed how organisations are addressing the challenges of a multi-generational workforce. What talent strategies are they putting in place to integrate the different perspectives and desires of these very different generations?
Guests at the dinner debating and discussing the topic included HR leaders from several blue-chip organisations. These included Smiths, Mace, Johnson Matthey, Deloitte, the British Council, Apollo, TP ICAP, glh hotels, BT, Qinetiq, O2 and GP Strategies.
Here we take a look at some of the key themes that came out of the discussion.
One of the biggest insights from the event was that organisations appear to be at very different places in terms of how they are encompassing all generations in the workplace. Some more forward-thinking organisations are managing to provide flexible approaches to integrate all generations effectively. Others, while open to adapting to the differing needs of the younger generations, have yet to find strategies that work for them.
A challenge felt by some in the room was around how best to engage the younger generation, especially in larger, more traditional companies where senior leadership teams tend to be led by older generations. And with Millennials set to make up 75% of the workplace by 2025, organisations are feeling the pressure to cater for them.
Though we’ve been managing four generations in the workplace for over a decade, with the oldest Millennials now in their early 30s, the consensus was that some organisations still have a long way to go in introducing more forward-thinking strategies to engage them.
Introducing a flat organisational structure was one strategy that came up in discussion. This lends itself more to technology-driven industries that are heavily project-based. In this structure, skills rather than hierarchy are utilised, with project teams built from a mobile talent pool.
This less siloed approach creates an environment where different generations are forced to work together, allowing for stronger relationships to be built. It suits Millennials who don’t recognise hierarchy in the same way as their older colleagues. In fact, research shows that 83% of Millennials feel they would perform better in companies with less management levels.
But how do the older generation respond to this approach? There was certainly a consensus that at least for less forward-thinking companies, this fluid approach can be quite daunting. And in a practical sense, while smaller companies may be able to operate in this environment, it’s much harder to implement in larger organisations.
Reverse-mentoring is another strategy being used to integrate multiple generations in the workforce. This is where a younger and an older employee pair up to help each other through different learnings. Many organisations assume it should be more experienced employees doing all the teaching, but there was an acknowledgement around the room that the younger generation has so much to offer older generations in terms of embracing the modern world, flexibility and technology. There is a lot to be said for building these relationships internally through shared learning.
There was also some discussion about how Millennials and Gen Z are seeking early portfolio careers; working in more than one job so they can expose themselves to as much as possible. But how would organisations manage this? We floated the idea of whether organisations would be brave enough to team up with a competitor and share resource to meet this expectation. At least for now, it was clear that this was a step too far for many.
The breadth of generations in the workplace means that organisations are filled with employees with wide-ranging ways of thinking, and who have different needs and expectations from an employer.
Integrating these different perspectives mostly comes down to identifying what younger generations want - and that older generations will tolerate. Encouraging older generations to embrace change and younger generations to be a little patient, will be one step in the right direction.